Friday, March 12, 2004

“History is not history unless it is the truth.” These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln to his close friend and law partner, Billy Herndon.

Lincoln knew the importance of getting history right, but little did he dream that he would become one of the principal characters in a strange attempt to turn history on its ear. In “Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators That Led to Lincoln’s Death,” authors Leonard F. Guttridge and Ray A. Neff attempt to do just that.

The authors conjure an incredible revision of the history of Lincoln’s assassination that has his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, plotting to remove Lincoln from office; John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, escaping to India; and a double agent named James W. Boyd being killed in Booth’s place by Union troops in Virginia. And all of this comes to light years later through the efforts of a fictionalized secret service agent whose supposed investigations unmasked the greatest coverup in U.S. history.

According to the authors of “Dark Union,” published last year, an “unholy alliance” was formed between Northern investors and politicians engaged in war profiteering with Southern power brokers in a “pork for cotton” scheme that gained the tacit approval of President Lincoln.

The South desperately needed meat to feed its starving armies while Lincoln desperately needed money to support his expensive war machine. As Confederate fortunes began to falter, however, Lincoln changed his mind and became the target of a plot to remove him from office and allow the deals to go through, thus ensuring millions in profits to the unholy alliance.

Originally selected by forces taking orders from Stanton, Booth heads an abduction team but soon falls from favor when it is decided he is not up to the task. Stanton replaces Booth with James W. Boyd (initials J.W.B.), a Confederate secret service agent sitting out the war in a Union prison, as “Dark Union” tells the tale.

Desperate to get out of prison, Boyd agrees to switch sides and take over leadership of the kidnap plot in exchange for safe passage to Mexico once the plan is completed. However, the plan collapses in the closing days of the war, and Booth, still smarting from the indignation of his removal, kills Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

Booth makes his escape through Southern Maryland, crossing the Potomac River into Virginia. Accompanying Booth is a young man by the name of Edwin Hynson, “a pint-sized guerrilla scout for the South who had helped Booth smuggle medicines” for the Confederacy.

According to Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff, David Herold, the man history tells us accompanied Booth, was already in Southern Maryland, carousing in local taverns at the time of the assassination. Herold, known to be an intimate friend of Booth’s, is arrested and brought to Washington.

Aware of Booth’s movements, Stanton sends a troop of cavalry after the president’s murderer. Herold, familiar with the back roads of Southern Maryland, is forced to accompany the soldiers as a guide. Along the way, the writers claim, the soldiers happen across James W. Boyd, who is in Southern Maryland after the collapse of the “pork for cotton” abduction scheme. The soldiers force Boyd to accompany them.

Boyd, fearing for his life because he knows too much about the plot to abduct Lincoln, decides to make his escape at the earliest opportunity. After the soldiers bed down for the night, Boyd and Herold slip away and head south following the route Booth took earlier.

Crossing the Potomac River into Virginia, Boyd and Herold stop at the farm of Virginia planter Richard Garrett, where the search party catches up with the two men. Thinking they have cornered Booth, the searchers kill Boyd and take Herold prisoner.

When Stanton learns that Boyd was killed instead of Booth, he decides to cover up the mistake and let the world believe it was Booth who was killed at the Garrett farm. Booth, meanwhile, makes a clean escape, eventually winding up in India, where he dies in 1883.

According to Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff, the coverup continues to this day, aided by inept historians. They write: “Valuable papers in Federal archives have been ignored, wrongly interpreted, or discounted because of lack of context or have simply escaped notice.” It is more a description of their own research than an indictment of others’.

The authors relied heavily on the files of a man by the name of Andrew Giles Potter. Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff claim Potter was in charge of the secret service division of the National Detective Police (NDP) headed by Lafayette C. Baker.

After the war, Potter is supposed to have amassed one of the most important archives in history. A significant part of Potter’s archive eventually wound up in Mr. Neff’s possession. After publication of “Dark Union,” he donated his papers, including Potter’s archive, to Indiana State University, where they are in the university’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Cunningham Memorial Library.

It is through the documents supposedly gathered by Andrew Potter that Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff build their incredible case in “Dark Union.” However, like the phantom officer created during World War II by British intelligence, Andrew Potter appears to be “The Man Who Never Was.” Therein lies the real story of the book.

According to the authors, Andrew Potter (and his brother Earl) found employment with a private agency known as the United States Detective Service after the war. It was at this time that Andrew undertook his most important assignment.

Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff claim that after the untimely deaths of several important people in the federal government, President Ulysses S. Grant authorized a clandestine investigation to determine if the deaths were from other than natural causes. The man Grant supposedly asked to take charge of the investigation was former Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. Wallace accepted the assignment and handed the fieldwork over to Andrew Potter and his brother Earl.

The two men set about the country interviewing people believed to have pertinent information relating to the deaths of the government officials and the assassination of Lincoln. The Potters “logged more than two hundred interviews, over a four-year period” that eventually became the core of the Neff-Guttridge Collection.

Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Neff write that as a result of their investigation, the Potters uncovered the plot to abduct Lincoln and the role of James W. Boyd, as well as Booth’s eventual escape to India. The Potters also learned of the coverup engineered by Stanton. They turned their files over to Wallace, who, the authors claim, concluded that bringing the culprits to trial would be too risky. Wallace wrote Grant, “who knows what direction testimony might take and just what previously undisclosed secrets might be dislodged by an astute defense.” Wallace recommended that “the report be sequestered.” Grant agreed — continuing the great coverup.

With the investigation completed, Wallace stored the report along with the Potter papers in the carriage house on his estate in Crawfordsville, Ind. There they remained until the 1920s, the writers say, when Andrew Potter decided to write a book based on his life, using the files as source material. When Potter went to access the papers, he found them in a deplorable condition. The documents had suffered from exposure to fire, water and pigeon manure that covered the improperly stored papers. Potter had the documents cleaned and transcribed, after which he destroyed all of the originals, leaving only the typescripts. These typescripts are all that survive in the Neff-Guttridge Collection.

Potter was never able to complete his project because of financial problems, the writers say. He turned the papers over to an old friend and headed west to Colorado, where he died three years later in 1932 at age 92. The papers passed through several hands, eventually becoming separated into three smaller collections. In 1968, Mr. Neff purchased one of the surviving parts of the Potter papers from an antiques dealer.

A careful examination of key parts of the Potter papers by several historians has resulted in questions about their authenticity. The papers contain numerous errors and inconsistencies. In one of Potter’s interviews, the subject did not know the name of her own husband or that he was still alive and living with her in Southern Maryland. James W. Boyd, the man the authors claim was killed at the Garrett farm in Booth’s place, actually died in Jackson, Tenn., on Jan. 1, 1866, eight months after he supposedly was killed at the Garrett farm.

The fact that all of the records located in the Neff-Guttridge Collection exist only as typed copies of purported originals that were systematically destroyed raises serious questions as to their provenance and about Andrew Potter. In an effort to authenticate Potter, a search of several files in the National Archives was undertaken. The files included all the record groups that might be expected to contain documents pertaining to Lafayette Baker’s day-to-day operation and the secret service under his command.

In addition, U.S. Census reports were searched. Each search proved negative. Not one reference to Andrew Potter was found, leading to the conclusion that the Andrew Potter of “Dark Union” does not exist outside of the Neff-Guttridge Collection. It is simply beyond belief that so important an individual would go through four years of civil war and the rest of his life without leaving a trace in any public record.

If there is no Andrew Potter, the Potter papers cannot be genuine.

The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that the man killed at the Garrett farm was John Wilkes Booth, not James W. Boyd. This evidence comes from a large body of primary documents available in public archives whose authenticity is well-established. The bulk of the evidence that claims James W. Boyd was killed while Booth escaped comes from secondary sources that exist only in private collections whose provenance is lacking. Many of these documents suffer from internal inconsistencies and error of fact that put their authenticity in doubt. Leading the list are the papers of the fictitious Andrew Potter.

The conclusions presented in “Dark Union,” based on a collection of typed transcriptions of purported originals that no longer exist, cannot be accepted as having serious merit. In the end, “Dark Union” is a house of cards built on a foundation of highly questionable material. It quickly crumbles when the slightest wind of query strikes it.

Edward Steers Jr.’s most recent book is “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.” A longer version of this article appeared in the February edition of North & South magazine. Mr. Steers lives in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

• Joan L. Chaconas specializes in the history of Washington, D.C., and of the Surratt family. She has served as president of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia and the Surratt Society.

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